On Normcore: Why Only Beautiful People Can Get Away with Dressing Ugly

normcore dev hynes

So, normcore. Ever since Fiona Duncan wrote about this new style trend that is about not having any style at all, or is rather about wearing “ardently ordinary clothes… mall clothes… blank clothes… the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses,” normcore has been getting a lot of attention, been the subject of many jokes, and been lumped into the same ironic fashion category as those once ubiquitous trucker hats. But is it all a joke? Or is it really some sort of style-based communion of people, an attempt to “welcom[e] the possibility of being recognizable, of looking like other people—and ‘see that as an opportunity for connection, instead of as evidence that your identity has dissolved’”? Or, you know, is it none of the above? Yeah, maybe that. Definitely that.

Proponents of the normcore movement are defending it by claiming that the blankness of its style tenets is an equalizer, and that it’s only by vanquishing certain external signifiers (in this case, expensive and fashionable clothes that fit well) that identity can be dissolved. And while some people might consider this line of reasoning to be patently bullshit, and think that normcore is just a case of powerful people flaunting their power by willingly ceding it, secure in the knowledge that no matter how many days in a row they wear faded, high-waisted jeans and black cotton turtlenecks, they can resume their fashionable mantle whenever they see fit, I don’t think that all normcore adherents come from a place of irony or disdain for the people whose style they’ve adapted. Rather, I think that Duncan is sincere when she writes that the people who have adopted normcore view it as, “a reset button—[like] going back to a time before adolescence, before we learned to differentiate identity through dress… normcore is a blank slate and open mind—it’s a look designed to play well with others.”

The problem lies in the fact that, even before “we learned to differentiate identity through dress,” we still already possessed an identity, one whose foundation was based in things like our race and our socio-economic status and our gender and our sexual identity and our physicality. The adage goes that the clothes make the man, but nobody’s naive enough to believe that, right? It’s always the man that makes the clothes. And, of course, that’s never more apparent than with normcore. It doesn’t really matter if Dev Hynes is dressing like someone’s midwestern dad, because Dev Hynes will never be mistaken for someone’s midwestern dad—everything about him, from his talent to his looks to his intelligence and even down to the way he wears that NYC baseball cap betray the fact that he is different. He might wear normcore, but he is not normal. Sure, it’s possible that the people who are wearing normcore are doing it for the reasons stated in Duncan’s article, and that all they want to do is blend in with everybody else, at least aesthetically. But even by admitting that they need to adopt a whole new style just in order to be normal demonstrates that they are not normal—not even close. The truth is that some people don’t need to worry about their identities because their status is secure. So even if normcore is a response to the overtly fashionable people and homes that are pervasive on Pinterest and Instagram and street-style blogs, and comes from a place of good intentions, it doesn’t really have the desired effect of leveling the playing field. If anything, it makes it perfectly clear who the really privileged are—they’re the ones who can get away with wearing blindingly white Jerry Seinfeld sneakers and Steve Jobs turtlenecks, because they know their place in society is already protected.

But also, maybe even more insidious, is the idea that a “normal” style is something that should be happily embraced. There’s a reason adolescents rebel against their parents. And there’s a reason that young adults reject the teenage style choices (including the Adidas track pants and branded clothes) that are now part of normcore. The reason is that we grow up, and many of us figure out that our identity is something to manipulate, it’s a thing we can control, a narrative for us to construct. Even if we could, why would we want to erase all that? So that we can fit in with the masses? The only people for whom that works are the ones that never had to worry about being a part of the masses in the first place, who couldn’t be normal if they tried.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen